Every year the news filters through of a birder that has chosen to tackle some sort of ‘Big Year’ type challenge.
There have been the more extreme challenges such as Noah Strycker who in 2015 gave up everything to a globe-trotting big year. On a smaller scale, Trevor Hardaker is presently doing a Western Cape big year, trying to see as many birds as possible on his ‘home-turf’ over the course of the year.
There is a group of ‘purist’ birders that look down on these kinds of challenges, and in fact any sort of listing, saying that it cheapens that whole experience of watching birds. They feel somehow that it creates a shallower form of birding where it’s about the numbers and nothing more.
I have decided to undertake my own challenge this year on my home turf, and what I have discovered is that the challenge has not taken away from by birding and my love of birds, in fact it’s gone a whole lot deeper.
Rich Stallcup is quoted as saying the following in Kenn Kaufman’s book, ‘Kingbird Highway’, where Kenn shares the story of his own big year that he did in 1973, ‘‘The list total isn’t important, but the birds themselves are important. Every bird you see. So the list is a frivolous incentive for birding, but the birding itself is worthwhile. It’s like a trip where the destination doesn’t have any significance except for the fact that it makes you travel. The journey is what counts.”
My big year challenge is nowhere near as epic as Noah Stryker’s worldwide traverse or Kenn Kaufman’s cross continent hitch-hiking big year. I won’t get to see as many species as Trevor Hardaker will see in the Western Cape. But nevertheless, this is a challenge that I am enjoying and loving how it is challenging me both as a person, and as a birder.
I stay in the Sapphire Coast area on the upper-KwaZulu Natal South Coast. We have set up a Birdlasser challenge for the area. Since the challenge started the record number of species that has been seen in a year is 238 species by Tyron Dall in 2019. This may not sound like a significant number of birds but consider that the challenge area is reasonably small and only stretches about 9km inland. Although the area provides some amazing birding opportunities, there is also a fair amount of the area that is made up of rural housing.
Initially the plan was to try to see 250 species over the course of the year, but we lost just over a month of birding with the Kwa-Zulu Natal flooding. The flooding also caused damage to a lot of infrastructure, so many of the birding areas that we would have gone to before, no longer have easy access. The goal that I have now is to break Tyron’s record for the challenge – which is a lot easier to do as he is not taking part in the challenge himself. I was aiming to see at least 239 species, but Jenny Norman said that I must go for at least 240, as that is a nice clean number. My gut feel is that the 250 is a little out of reach, but you never know what could turn up in during the year in the area.
My strategy is to cover as much of the area, as often as possible, and not just recording random species, but looking to do as many Full Protocol cards for the SABAP2 project as possible over the course of the year.
I want to share how this challenge has not only allowed me to see more than 220 species in the challenge area so far this year, but also how it has allowed me to deepen my journey as a birder. Hopefully this article is practical and helps you as a birder.
I am also hoping that this challenge makes a small difference to bird conservation, as I come face to face with the challenges of things such as habitat loss over the course of the year.